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Battle against human trafficking to continue as diplomat moves on

WASHINGTON—He met her in a Starbucks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While the story she told was gut-wrenching, it wasn't unlike those he'd heard countless times over the past four years.

Nour Miyati, an Indonesian woman in her 20s, had come to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic servant. But her dream of supporting her family back home turned into a nightmare. Her employers abused and tortured her. She lost fingers and toes to gangrene when the wounds from her beatings went untreated and festered. When she finally escaped and sought justice in a Saudi court, she was sentenced to 79 lashes.

"It was heart-rending," John Miller said of his meeting with Miyati.

A tall, lanky, former congressman from Washington state, Miller has traveled the world as the head of the State Department's office to monitor and combat human trafficking. But after visiting 50 countries since 2002, pleading his case with crown princes and prime ministers and meeting, by his count, more than 1,000 survivors of 21st-century slavery, Miller is moving on.

"It's been rewarding and I think we have made a difference," Miller said in an interview. "But I'm worn down, and after four years it is time for a change."

As he leaves to take a job as a professor at George Washington University, Miller said the human trafficking problem can be overwhelming. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, and even the blunt threats of diplomacy, such as withholding aid or imposing sanctions, can be ineffective.

Every year, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders, according to the State Department. About 80 percent of them are women and girls. Up to half are minors. Most of them are victims of sex trafficking, winding up as prostitutes in countries ranging from the Dominican Republic to the Netherlands to Japan. Others are forced to become beggars, child soldiers or camel jockeys. Still others are forced to work in sweatshops 20 hours a day or are trapped in involuntary servitude as construction or domestic workers.

After four years of listening to victims' heart-rending stories, Miller is hard to shock.

He recalled meeting an 11-year-old who worked in an embroidery factory in Southeast Asia whose owner poured acid on her and shot her. He met a man in India who was an indentured servant at a brick mill because his grandfather had borrowed 20 or 30 rupees years ago and the family had been unable to repay the debt. In Amsterdam, he met a Czech woman who was forced into prostitution after being told she'd never see her 2-year-old daughter again if she didn't cooperate.

"Intellectually you know this has been with us since the pharaohs," Miller said. "But when you see it, when you meet with the survivors, it hits you—it's human greed that leads to this type of abuse."

When it come to human trafficking, no country is clean, including the United States. Every year, about 17,500 people are smuggled across U.S. borders into slavery, Miller said.

"Are we doing enough?" Miller said. "No. No country is doing enough."

Each year, the State Department is required to submit a report to Congress on what other countries are doing to eliminate human trafficking. This year, the report assessed the efforts of 149 countries. Twelve of them, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, were identified as Tier 3 countries that don't comply with minimum standards and aren't making significant steps to comply. Another 32 countries were on a watch list.

Under U.S. law, the federal government can withhold non-humanitarian aid from the worst offenders. In addition, these countries can face U.S. opposition to assistance from such international financial institutions as the World Bank. But such steps are rarely taken and, in most cases, the threats are toothless. Most Tier 3 countries don't receive U.S. aid or international financial assistance.

Though there's no way to know whether the number of human trafficking victims has peaked, Miller said there are signs of progress. More than 80 countries have passed anti-trafficking laws in the past two years. This year, there'll be an estimated 4,700 convictions in trafficking cases. Two or three years ago there were several hundred. The number of shelters for victims is growing, as is public awareness.

But even as the international community is struggling to control current levels of human trafficking, a new threat is looming—the worldwide migration of an estimated 120 million workers spurred on by globalization and the proliferation of free-trade agreements. It's an area ripe for worker abuse.

The State Department called it the latest "trafficking phenomenon" as migrant workers are flooding rapidly development countries in Asia and the Near East, attracted by low-skilled construction, manufacturing, agriculture and domestic jobs.

Critics say the proliferation of free-trade agreements has helped fuel this mass migration of workers as businesses in such countries as Jordan try to cash in on trade with the United States.

The National Labor Committee, which investigates labor abuses around the world, said in a recent report that the number of textile factories in Jordan has increased rapidly since the United States signed a free-trade agreement with that country. The report found substandard conditions in 25 of Jordan's roughly 100 textile manufacturing sites. The migrant workers at these factories, many from Bangladesh, face abusive conditions, the report said.

"It's clear there is a huge amount of trafficking all over the world, and we suspect a lot of them (migrant workers) are headed to countries with which we have or may eventually have free-trade agreements," said Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee.

Kernaghan and others say Congress should refuse to approve a pending free-trade agreement with Oman unless strict labor protections are added. Oman is on the State Department's human trafficking watch list.

Kernaghan said when he met with Miller to discuss the situation in Jordan he expected to find an office filled with "political hacks" toeing the free-trade line.

"But they took it seriously," he said. "Miller struck me as a person of integrity and goodwill. He struck me as the real thing, and it's too bad he is leaving."

Miller said that when he raised the issue with the Jordanians, they promised changes.

"They don't want to lose the free-trade agreement," he said.

Miller, a one-time television commentator in Seattle, said when he took the State Department post he knew human trafficking was a major problem. He was a member of the House International Relations Committee while serving in Congress from 1985 to 1993.

"But I didn't know the personal side," he said.

Stories like those of Nour Miyati trouble him, especially the sentence she received. The Saudi court ordered no punishment for her male owner, 35 lashes for her female owner and 79 lashes for Miyati because of disloyalty, he said.

Miller said he raised Miyati's case in a meeting with the Saudi crown prince, and her sentence was reversed. Though Miyati plans to return home to Indonesia eventually, she remains in Saudi Arabia pursuing her case.

"She's still fighting," Miller said. "She is an amazing and courageous person."

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Here is a list of Tier 3 countries, or those with the worst records on human trafficking, as compiled by the State Department:

Belize

Burma

Cuba

Iran

Laos

North Korea

Saudi Arabia

Sudan

Syria

Uzbekistan

Venezuela

Zimbabwe

The complete State Department report on human trafficking can be found at:

http://www.state.gov/g/tip/

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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